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How to change careers, according to the experts

It's never too late to go for your dream job.
How to do a career pivot
Whether for passion or necessity, here's how to switch to a completely new job or industry.TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

The question starts before you even learn how to read: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Deciding on a career is something we’re all encouraged to do throughout school, and choosing a major in college to focus on your dream job can be crucial. But what happens when you’re an adult and you don’t want to do that job anymore — or can’t?

Enter, the career pivot.

Whether for passion or necessity, many are using the skills they already have to switch to a completely new job or industry. Below, find out how to do it yourself.

How to know when it’s time to pivot

Julie Tobi is a career pivot coach and works specifically with professionals who are looking to veer from their current roles into a new dream job. She said she finds most people are switching jobs out of necessity, especially right now during the pandemic.

“But when they look a touch deeper, I’m seeing that people are actually finding that they wanted to pivot all along, but weren’t allowing themselves to go there because of the perceived risk involved and needing to reach outside their comfort zone.”

Courtney Dunlop (right) went from magazine beauty editor to owner of a wine company (pictured here with her business partner, Michelle).
Courtney Dunlop (right) went from magazine beauty editor to owner of a wine company (pictured here with her business partner, Michelle).Christine Bonnivier Photography

Courtney Dunlop had her dream job as a beauty editor at Jane magazine, but after the publication folded in 2007, she was forced to make a change. “I realized that the only way I was going to be successful is if I could control my own career on my terms,” she said.

After freelancing and working at an online startup, she decided to launch her own pop-up shop selling indie skin care products in Springfield, Missouri. She and her business partner would hold promotional events with sustainably grown and produced wine, and clients loved it. That’s when they got the idea to launch their wine company, Good Clean Wine.

“I never in a million years thought I would own a wine company,” Dunlop said. “But it’s amazing what can happen if you follow your curiosity and let things unfold without forcing them.”

How to know where to pivot

Miry Whitehill’s original career was in advertising, but after she was let go, she decided to take a break to be full-time with her 18-month-old. “You don’t leave with the intent of never coming back,” she said.

Fast-forward to the addition of her second baby, Whitehill was contacted by someone she knew who asked if she had extra baby equipment and supplies that could be given to a nearby refugee family. After seeing all the things they needed, Whitehill was inspired to start a nonprofit called Miry’s List, which helps resettling refugee families.

Miry Whitehill (left) at the 2019 World Refugee Day Awards poses with her colleague Huda and her three boys.
Miry Whitehill (left) at the 2019 World Refugee Day Awards poses with her colleague Huda and her three boys.Courtesy Miry's List

“I had never considered doing that as a career,” she said. “I discovered a problem that existed for a family and then I discovered that a lot of people wanted to help me solve that problem.”

But what if you don’t find a person calling like Whitehill did? How do you know where to go next? Tobi suggests that if you’re feeling stuck, ask yourself this question: “If I could go back five, 10, 15 years or to when I first started my career, what would I pursue?”

How to transfer your skills when switching careers

“Most often people have a much more robust skill set than they realize,” Tobi said. “Look at your skills less as a job description and more with a flair of how you do the work.” She suggests thinking of bigger-picture skills — like problem solving, conflict resolution, creative thinking, communication and writing skills — then tweaking and applying these to the next career.

Whitehill said she uses her social media and brand-awareness skills from her advertising days in her nonprofit job now.

Dunlop said she uses skills from her prior job when working with her brand, too. “There are pieces of every job and assignment I’ve ever had, dating all the way back to my high school job working at Bath & Body Works in the mall, that help me run this company,” she said.

How to explain the pivot to future employers

If you’re not starting your own business and need to explain the career switch to a future employer, Tobi suggests being honest with them, “but don’t feel like you have to spill every detail.”

“This is your employer, not your best friend,” she said. “And always give it a positive spin. Rather than saying, ‘I was bored to tears in my last job,’ try something like, ‘I made the decision to dedicate myself to work that inspires me and energizes me, it’s a win-win — I get to do work I love and you have an enthusiastic team member.’”

Avoid this common career pivot mistake

Sometimes we think we’re looking for an entirely new career, but not always. Tobi warns that a common mistake she sees is when people run away from what they don’t like instead of following what they do like.

“Be honest with yourself about what you don’t like about your current career,” she said. “If you’re running from conflict with colleagues or anxiety with work-related situations, you’re likely to bring those things with you to your next career. However, if you’re not fulfilled by the work itself and find it uninspiring, by all means pivot into a career that does fulfill and inspire.”